Before Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, there was Kamal Haasan’s ‘Vetri Vizha’

The 1989 Tamil movie drew heavily from Robert Ludlum’s novel ‘The Bourne Identity’ but came before the Matt Damon thrillers.

Kamal Haasan has a lengthy track record of appearing in as well as producing movies that have been borrowed wholesale from Hollywood. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery here – some of Haasan’s best-known Tamil titles might have been stolen from Hollywood, but his directors and writers have cleverly adapted the material and brought in local references to make the new film wholly credible. Avvai Shanmughi (1996) might have borrowed its plot from Mrs Doubtfire, Anbe Sivan (2003) might have been loaned its basic storyline from both Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Forces of Nature (1999), while Thenali (2000) might be a faithful reworking of All About Bob (1991), but for viewers who have watched these movies without visiting the source, they work just fine on their own.

The Prathap Pothen-directed Vetri Vizha (1989) draws heavily from Robert Ludlum’s 1980 spy thriller The Bourne Identity. It may have come after a 1988 television adaptation, but it predates by a cool 13 years the Matt Damon blockbuster that kickstarted a franchise and two later sequels.

Vetri Vizha has fights in every other scene, betrayals at every corner, and an overall air of mystery that also marked the Damon films. For those choosing to live under a rock, Vetri Vizha, which has been remastered and will be re-released in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in June, works just fine as an Indian-style action thriller with songs, glamour and humour.

The song Thathom Talangu from Vetri Vizha (1989).

The movie cuts to the chase right from the opening. Haasan is being pursued by a group of gunmen. Found unconscious and nursed back to health by a doctor (Sowcar Janaki) and her granddaughter Shirley (Sasikala), Haasan describes himself as Stephen Raj. Although he marries Sasikala, flashes from his past compel him to visit Chennai, where he find who he really is.

At the Connemara Hotel, Stephen discovers the bank locker that helped Jason Bourne set out on his path of revenge. I think I am a deadly killer and therefore not a nice man to know, Stephen tells Shirley, but he is, in fact, an undercover police officer who had infiltrated criminal mastermind Zinda’s gang. Played by theatre and television actor Salim Ghouse, Zinda appears over an hour and 20 minutes into the movie, but is a menacing presence throughout. Among his many crimes is that he owns a pet leopard.

The movie’s selling point is the action and there is plenty of it – on the beachfront, on the road (where Haasan kidnaps a couple played by Prabhu and Khushboo) and in an elevator. Nobody leaves Stephen alone, and like a masterless samurai in a Japanese chanbara film, Stephen must always keep his wits about him and be ready to spring into action whatever the circumstances.

The cast includes Radha Ravi as Stephen’s boss, Disco Shanti as a sympathetic club dancer, Amala as Stephen’s first and dear departed wife, and Janagaraj as a comic cult leader. Set in a world in which telephone numbers had six digits and there were no cellphones, Vetri Vizha makes the most of Ludlum’s source novel. For hardcore Kamal Haasan fans, it might well be the movie that set the template for the Bourne trilogy.

Salim Ghouse in Vetri Vizha (1989).
Salim Ghouse in Vetri Vizha (1989).
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